My dialogue with Matthew Hutson, the author of The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, over the last few days has been stimulating and thought provoking. As I’ve been thinking about our conversation, I’ve been refining my rejoinder to his purely materialist, reductionist perspective. Here’s one way to summarize my view:
Even assuming that all particle interactions are random and that evolution is the product of this chance natural selection (about which I remain agnostic), the mechanistic materialist perspective is not necessarily incompatible with teleology, as there seems to be an implicit asymmetry in the nature of being that causes those chance interactions to add up to a larger process which tends towards increasing novelty, order, and consciousness. It’s as if we have lived all our lives on a slight slope, but we assume that slope to be completely flat because we have never known any other inclination. Our whole physics, our whole science is designed assuming that we are working on a flat plane when the truth seems to be that the deep cosmic structure is tilted ever so slightly in the temporal dimension towards the emergence of consciousness. Therefore, we may never be able empirically to show that there is this tendency until we have adjusted our whole mode of thought to take this deeply concealed factor into account. We need not necessarily change our physics because they work within their domain of applicability, like Newtonian physics works between the very large and the very small, though this metaphysical shift might open up new areas of physical research. But we must also consider the possibility that our physics are perfectly constructed to hide a miniscule slant in the nature of reality (this is, of course, only a metaphor for a higher order phenomenon that exceeds the scope of spatiality), which over very long periods of time produces directionality in the entire process. Even our most advanced physics, quantum theory and relativity, do not take into account that time is apparently a fractal dimension (as Jean Gebser and Terence McKenna suggest in different inflections—more about this another time), which we are moving through like a ball rolling down a barely discernible incline. If we could perceive the fullness of the temporal fourth dimension mathematically described by relativity as we see the three spatial dimensions, perhaps we would understand that time has a qualitative topology, but one that tends towards novelty just as gravity tends to draw massive objects together.
Thus, the choice is not between materialist reductionism and theistic intelligent design. In fact, the choice is not even between purely materialist reductionism and a subtle teleology almost imperceptibly guiding the evolutionary process. Rather, it seems to me that there is no choice because both perspectives are true within their domains of validity. Looked at atomistically, I would argue that evolution is most likely a purely random physical process. But looked at as an emergent whole, it is an undeniably teleological process. Thus, the paradox can be resolved, as is so often the case, by pushing through to a deeper level of meaning where the seemingly incommensurable perspectives can be reconciled. The material facts require the teleological narrative to give them meaning and direction, while the teleological narrative requires the material facts to give it the medium of concrete actuality in which the final cause must be expressed.
I’ve employed this quote from John Stuart Mill’s Coleridge essay in several conversations I’ve had here lately, but it bears repeating:
All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.
If everyone who asserted one view in opposition to another (science vs. religion, reductionism vs. teleology, etc.) could recognize that all modes of thought have partial validity (though perhaps not equal validity), we could get on with discussing the really interesting questions, like what would it mean to experience the fourth, temporal dimension as fully as we experience the three spatial dimensions, and is such a thing even possible? Why do we have complete freedom of movement in the three spatial dimensions, but we are seemingly locked into a linear movement through time, which is mathematically describable as a fourth spatial dimension? In my opinion, we have the three spatial dimensions pretty well sussed out, so the frontier of human understanding ripe for discovery is time, and specifically approaches that interpret temporality as qualitative rather than quantitative, from Jungian synchronicity and Bergsonian duration to Tarnasian archetypal cosmology. But that’s a subject for another day.